When it comes to sensitive political issues, one would not necessarily consider Reddit the first point of call to receive up-to-date and accurate information. Despite being one of the most popular digital platforms in the world, Reddit also has reputation as a space which, amongst the memes and play, fosters conspiracy theories, bigotry, and the spread of other hateful material. In turn it would seem like Reddit would be the perfect place for the development and spread of the myriad of conspiracy theories and misinformation that have followed the spread of COVID-19 itself.
Despite this, the main discussion channel, or ‘subreddit’, associated with coronavirus — r/Coronavirus — alongside its sister-subreddt r/COVID19, have quickly developed a reputation as some of the most reliable sources to gain up-to-date information about the virus. How Reddit has achieved this could potentially provide a framework for how large digital platforms could engage in difficult issues such as coronavirus in the future.
r/Coronavirus has exploded in popularity as the virus has spread around the world. In January the subreddit had just over 1,000 subscribers — a small but dedicated cohort of users interested in the development and spread of the at-the-time relatively unknown disease. Since then it has ballooned to over 1.9 million subscribers, with hundreds of posts appearing on the channel every day.
In turn Reddit, which has a reputation as a space of ‘everything goes’, has been required to develop a unique approach to dealing with discussion on the platform, one that is proving quite successful. How have they done it?
The success of Reddit’s r/Coronavirus lies primarily in the way the space has been moderated. Subreddits can be founded by any registered user. These users usually then act as moderators, and, depending on the size of the subreddit may recruit other moderators to help with this process. Larger subreddits often work with the site-wide administrators of Reddit in order to maintain the effective running of the specific subreddit.
While Reddit has a range of site-wide rules that apply to the platform overall, subreddit moderators also have the capacity to shape both the look of the space, and the rules which apply to them. In turn, as Tarleton Gillespie argues in his book Custodians of the Internet content policies and moderation practices help shape the shape of public discourse online. The success of the r/Coronavirus lies in how moderators, and overall site-administrators have shaped the space.
We can identify three clear things that the Reddit admin and moderators of r/Coronavirus have done to effectively shape the space.
The first lies in the rules of the subreddit. r/Coronavirus has a total of seven rules, most of which focus around the types of content they allow on the subreddit. These rules are: (1) be civil, (2) no edited titles, (3) avoid reposting information, (4) avoid politics, (5) keep information quality high, (6) no clickbait, and (7) no spam or self-promotion. In essence these rules dictate that r/Coronavirus should be limited entirely to information about the virus, sourced from high-quality outlets, which are linked to in the subreddit itself. Users are only allowed to post content that is based off a news report or other form of information, with titles that are a direct replicate of the content of the report itself. Posts that don’t link back to high-quality sources, such as posts that are text only, are explicitly banned and deleted by the moderators. r/Coronavirus promotes this information-based approach through the design of the subreddit as well. Redditors, for example, are able to filter their information based on region, giving localised content based on where a user lives. These regional filters are clearly visible on each post, meaning users can easily see where information comes from.
These content rules promote a subreddit that is focused on high quality information and avoids the acrimonious debates for which Reddit is (in)famous. This is best articulated through rule 4, ‘avoid politics’, which r/Coronavirus defines as shaming campaigns against businesses and individuals, posts about a politician’s take on events (unless they are actively discussing policy or legislation), and some opinion pieces. The moderators argue that posts about what has happened are preferred to posts about what should happen, in turn focusing content on information about what is going on, rather than debates about the consequences and implications of this.
Secondly, r/Coronavirus manages these rules through an active moderation process. The existence of rules are all well and good, but if they are unenforceable they often mean nothing. r/Coronavirus has developed a large moderation team, each of whom are dedicating large amounts of their time to the site. r/Coronavirus has approximately 60 moderators, many of whom have expertise in the area – including researchers of infectious disease, virologists, computer scientists, doctors and nurses, and more. This breadth of expertise has given moderators an authority within the space, reducing internal debates (or what is colloquially known as ‘Subreddit Drama’) about moderation practices. Moderators in turn play an active role in the subreddit, including (through an AutoModerator) posting a daily discussion thread, which includes links to a range of high-quality information about the disease.
Finally, Reddit has worked hard to make r/Coronavirus the go-to place for Redditors who wish to engage with content on the disease. As the situation became more severe Reddit began to run push notifications to users encouraging them to join. Registered users of Reddit who are not following the subreddit also now see occasional web banners encouraging them to join. These actions have promoted r/Coronavirus as the official space on Reddit for coronavirus related issues, implicitly discrediting other channels about the disease which are under less control from the site-wide administrators and may include more political material. This allows Reddit administrations to more effectively control discussion of the disease on the platform through channeling activity through one highly-moderated space, rather than having to manage a number of messier communities.
Of course, all of this has limitations. r/Coronavirus is a space for information, and information only. But the coronavirus, and the response to it, is political, and it requires political engagement. Every day politicians are making society-altering decisions in response to this crisis – from the increase of policing to huge stimulus packages to keep economies going. Due to the way r/Coronavirus is shaped, political discussions around the consequences and implications of these decisions, as well as debates about how governments should respond, is either very limited or simply not possible. In turn, while r/Coronavirus has done a good job of creating a space where information about the disease can be shared, it has not solved the problem of how to create a political space on Reddit which does not automatically descend into bigotry and acrimony.
In creating this information space r/Coronavirus is also very hierarchical. Moderators have a large amount of power, in particular in deciding what is considered ‘high quality’ information. This reinforces particular hierarchies about the values of particular types of sciences and other authorial sources of information, with little space to challenge the role of these professions in the policy response to the spread of the disease.
r/Coronavirus therefore only plays a particular role in the discussion about coronavirus on Reddit – it is a space to gather information on what has happened in relation to the disease. But that role is also important in and of itself, particularly in a time where there are such big changes happening around the world, and at such speed. In doing so Reddit has created an effective subreddit that is an excellent one-stop-shop for all coronavirus information. It has done so, ironically, by going actively off-brand.
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